Military & Aerospace

The critical battles of Helmand and Kandhar
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Feb , 2011

Gen McChrystal had asked for the size of the ANA to be raised from 134,000 troops to 240,000 troops. However, ultimately it was pegged at 171,000 troops. The size of the US/NATO contingent now grew to 98,000 US troops and 42,000 NATO troops. This makes it larger than the peak Soviet force commitment in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The size of the ANA however remains highly inadequate. The pre-Soviet invasion Afghan Army had numbered 230,000 troops. The Soviets left behind a recreated Afghan army of 550,000 . That is the optimal size needed for a country, the size of Afghanistan, especially if the ANA has to operate in a standalone mode.

Also read: The Revolt in East Pakistan

The amazing fact is that the Pakistan Army has raised serious objection to any increase in the size and equipment pattern of the ANA. It wants it reduced to the status of an armed constabulary, so that Pakistan can physically intervene in a post-American withdrawal scenario. The simple fact is that the ISI of Pakistan continues to provide support to the Quetta Shoora of Mullah Mohammed Omar, as also the Haqqani Shoora and to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami Shoora. These Shooras are the backbone of the Taliban insurgency. Afghanistan has now become America’s longest war – longer even than the prolonged Vietnam engagement.

The US Defense budget has shot up from US$ 370 billion in 2001 to US$ 707 billion in 2011. With the second surge, the US is spending almost US$ 100 billion a year on Afghanistan. The US/NATO casualties in 2008 were 295. These shot up to 521 in 2009 with the first surge and the Battle of Helmand. In 2010, the US/NATO casualties have shot upto an all time high of 711. The combined US/NATO casualties in Afghanistan so far are over 2,284. This is the most critical aspect of the Afghan War and success/failure would primarily hinge upon the US/NATO stomach to absorb such casualties for the next four years and more.

The Marjah Offensive

As part of Gen Petraeus’ Clear, Hold and Build strategy, the US had launched a major offensive in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in February 2010. Taking a leaf from the Pakistani military offensives in Swat and South Waziristan, it was a well advertised operation that was announced in the media weeks before its launch. Little attempt was made to hide preparations in the hope that news of the coming major offensive would induce the Taliban to melt away and thus conserve US casualties. Surprisingly, the Taliban stood up and fought. Helmand is the key poppy growing area and hence was critical for the Taliban. The town of Marjah was cleared by a major heliborne assault. However, the Taliban seeped right back in and the much hyped government in the box could not consolidate itself in the wake of the military operations. The resistance in Marjah was far higher than anticipated and the NATO and ISAF troops took heavy casualties. As a result, troops could not be lifted for the Kandahar operations as per original schedule.

Despite the major effort the turn out for election in Marjah was below 18% (It was generally 40% in other areas). This clearly highlighted the failure to pacify the area and effect administrative penetration of the population. Nevertheless, the major gain of this battle has been to bring the Taliban to battle and hopefully impose significant attrition.

 The Kandahar Offensive

The second phase of the American offensive was anticipated in June2010 in the key Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. However, the Taliban’s unexpected resistance in Marjah delayed the launch of this operation. The Afghanistan Government anticipated heavy civilian collateral damage and was dead set against this assault. This was therefore converted to a Military Civic Action Programme called Op Hamkari (Dari for “Cooperation”). Gen McChrystal had tried to restrict civilian collateral damage by curtailing the employment of airpower. This had led to a sharp increase in US/ISAF troop casualties and considerable resentment in the rank and file of the US Army/Marines.

US/NATO will have to be prepared to pay the cost in terms of casualties. This is the American Achilles Heel. Hence, the US is increasingly getting impatient of the Pakistani sanctuary support to the Afghan Taliban.

It appears that the new Commander, Gen Petraeus was forced to restore close air support (largely in terms of Attack Helicopter sorties) and in general, restore the use of airpower to sustain troop morale and operational effectiveness. The military force to insurgent ratio is not adequate in Afghanistan. With these force levels, only offensive air support can tilt the balance, especially if the time window of operations is so limited and the sensitivity to casualties is so high.

Unlike the Marjah operations, the Kandahar offensive was launched quietly in end August. Reportedly, operations had commenced in Mehla Jat (South West of Kandahar) in the last week of August. These were followed by operations in the neighbouring areas of Kandahar, to include Argandhab, Zhari (birth place of Mullah Omar) and Panjwaye districts. These led to fierce fighting in the vineyards, Pomegranate orchards and over 10 feet high fields of Marijuana. A Brigade of the US 101 Air Borne Division commenced operations in the Zhari district along with an Engineer Battalion to clear mines/IEDs., 18 US soldiers were killed in these operations. The newly arrived 22 Armoured Regiment lost 5 men on 30 Aug 10 to a roadside IED blast. The main offensive was launched on Saturday, 02 October 2010. Hard fighting ensued.

The fact that the Taliban did not roll with the punch but put up pitched battles indicates the significance it attaches to this key opium producing terrain that funds its operations. It therefore provides a major opportunity for US forces to inflict high levels of attrition on the Taliban. Gen Petraeus has stated that the operations launched in Kandahar are more nuanced. He is optimistic that these will force the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and in fact, he cited the attempts by high level Taliban leaders to reach out to the Afghan government.

The problems, however, are twofold – the heavy casualties the US/NATO troops are taking in the heavily mined terrain and the political pressures on the Obama Administration to end the Afghan engagement in July 2011 as announced. Gen Petraeus knows he cannot ask for more troops (which are certainly needed). He has been asking for more time. The withdrawal in July 2011 therefore, is likely to be very cosmetic/token in nature. In fact, President Obama has now clearly indicated that though token thin out could commence, the date for handing over the charge to the ANA is 2014. The NATO allies have endorsed this and in fact, have promised to stay engaged (economically, at least) for well beyond that date. They fully realise that any precipitate withdrawal would well be seen as victory of the Taliban.

Also read: Chinese avionics & missiles for Pakistan

 The American/ISAF strategy is to put sufficient military pressure to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. “Negotiated peace agreements”, said Gen Petraeus, “are ultimately the way the CI efforts have been concluded.” However, a very public declaration of a withdrawal deadline incentivises the insurgents to stay the course and hold on. It fails to let the military and psychological pressure build up and in a way defeats the very purpose of the surge. Helmand and Kandahar however, have been identified correctly as the key centres of gravity of the Taliban. These are key narcotic markets and bomb producing areas. Their concerted engagement will yield good results.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen GD Bakshi, (Retd)

is a war Veteran and Strategic Analyst.

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